For one of his first acts as USC interim coach, Ed Orgeron brought cookies back to the training table. This made for a cute anecdote and a television-ready sound bite—"Feed a lineman a cookie, he's happy," Orgeron said on Oct. 2, after his opening practice as the head man—but Orgeron's reasons went deeper than a big ugly's love for chocolate chips.
When he served as a defensive coach under Pete Carroll in the early 2000s, during the Trojans' run of dominance, Orgeron often saw players lingering in the dining hall after meals. They sat together. They laughed together. To Orgeron, they looked like brothers at the family dinner table. When Lane Kiffin replaced Carroll in 2010 and brought Orgeron back to USC as an assistant, Kiffin banned sweets in an attempt to make the players healthier. Orgeron noticed that they also ate less. They spent less time together in the dining hall. They didn't seem to enjoy themselves.
They also lost more often. That's why athletic director Pat Haden relieved Kiffin of his duties after a 62--41 loss at Arizona State, which dropped the Trojans to 3--2. So when Orgeron brought in cookies the day after Kiffin was fired, he didn't necessarily want his players bingeing on sugar. He wanted them to have fun, and dessert was only the first step.
A month later, on the other side of the country, Brian Wright faced an even more traumatic upheaval. The offensive coordinator at Florida Atlantic, Wright was named interim coach of the 2--6 Owls three days before they were to play 6--2 Tulane. The reason? Athletic director Patrick Chun had presented coach Carl Pelini and defensive coordinator Pete Rekstis with affidavits alleging their cocaine and marijuana use. Both men resigned. (Pelini has since attempted to rescind his resignation and denied using illegal drugs. Rekstis has had no comment.) Wright stood before a stunned team on Oct. 30 and explained the situation; later, he huddled with the remaining coaches. "We started with shock," Wright says. "Then we had to put a plan together to keep our football team together." Like Orgeron, Wright hoped a lighter mood would keep his squad from fracturing.
Both interim coaches surmised correctly. After last Saturday's 47--29 win at Colorado the Trojans are 6--1 under Orgeron, even with a roster depleted by injuries and NCAA sanctions. The Owls, meanwhile, followed a 34--17 upset of Tulane with two more victories. If they beat rival Florida International on Black Friday they'll be bowl eligible, and Wright will be 4--0. This interim success should help Orgeron and Wright find their next jobs—it might make one or both the permanent coach at his current school—but it may also serve as a lesson to those grim-faced coaches across the country who believe football is a game to be endured rather than enjoyed: If you loosen up a little, you might win a few more games.
DURING USC'S 2004 title run Orgeron was often described as Carroll's top lieutenant. A more accurate title was sergeant at arms. "I was Pete's hard-ass," Orgeron says. Carroll, the fun-loving good cop, devised April Fool's Day spring practice jokes starring Will Ferrell. Orgeron, the taskmaster, growled in a rumbling Louisiana accent that made it sound as if he snacked on limestone.
When Orgeron took over at Ole Miss in 2005, he kept his old role. No one played the Carroll part. "It was the bad cop and the bad cop," says Orgeron, who was fired in '07 after going 10--25. As he sifted through the wreckage of his time in Oxford, Orgeron noticed something: He was far more forgiving with his own sons (Tyler, Parker and Cody) than he was with the Rebels. Orgeron resolved that if he ever got another chance to be a head coach, he would treat his players the way he treated his kids. "I've got a great relationship with my sons," the 52-year-old Orgeron says. "I'm kind of soft at home."
A softer touch doesn't necessarily produce a softer team. When he was named interim coach, Orgeron showed the players a five-minute video from the glory days, with Matt Leinart & Co. celebrating big play after big play. He encouraged the players to talk trash to one another at practice. During USC's bye week he introduced the Trojan Bowl—a scrimmage among the backups—and a meal from Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles afterward. He brought back guest speakers, including Ray Lewis and Dr. Dre. The wins followed, highlighted by an upset of No. 5 Stanford that ended with Orgeron's conducting the USC band with Tommy Trojan's sword. "It's a party on the field," USC offensive tackle Kevin Graf says.
In Boca Raton, Wright and his assistants chose a similar path. That first week, they gathered players to practice singing the fight song (sample lyric: "Hoot! Hoot! The fighting Owls are on the prowl") so they'd know the words after wins. During the bye week following the Tulane victory, Wright organized the Scout Bowl. Veterans sat in the student section and cheered as scout teamers played. Former Owls coach Howard Schnellenberger had held a similar event called the Toilet Bowl, but Pelini had discontinued it. The bye week ended in a kickball tournament, with the winning team of players facing the coaches. "I thought that's something the coaching staff could win," Wright, 41, says. (It did not.)
In the past two weeks, FAU players have maintained near-perfect class and tutoring attendance thanks to another of Wright's initiatives. For every day that every player attends class and tutoring—no misses, no arriving late—the team earns time to run the coaches through a battery of drills at a practice later this week. As of last week, the Owls had earned five minutes. "We can have fun," Wright says, "and we can get our work done at practice and really allow this thing to come together."
At USC and FAU, the players have responded by practicing harder and by winning. Player-coach bonds have also been strengthened. "When I'd go around the coaches' offices [under Kiffin], I'd feel kind of tense, just uncomfortable," USC defensive end Leonard Williams says. "Now, when I go up there, they're like my friends."
Minutes after the Trojans' practice broke on Nov. 20, players wrestled and joked with elementary-school-aged children of assistant coaches and support staffers. Wives greeted their husbands' position groups. Every Wednesday under Orgeron is family night. Coaches arrange a special meal, and the families of football staffers eat with the players. As he walked off the practice field that evening, the man who brought fun back to USC clapped his hands and smiled. He had started with cookies, and they had led to victories. This night's meal hinted at something even more substantial. "Big steaks," Orgeron bellowed. "Sixteen-ounce rib eyes, baby!"
THEIR SUCCESS MAY BE A LESSON TO COACHES WHO THINK FOOTBALL IS TO BE ENDURED RATHER THAN ENJOYED.
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Photograph by JOHN E. MCGILLEN/USC ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT
MAKING A POINT Orgeron, 6--1 so far, has led the band after wins, and Charles Burks hit the stands after the Stanford victory.
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LETTING IT FLY After the shocking departure of their coach, the Owls have won three in a row to get to 5--6 and could still qualify for a bowl.